A few days ago I took my toddler to the local adventure playground. There, kids darted around maniacally, mums shouted at their offspring to “Be careful!”, and at the centre of it all a tiny boy was becoming increasingly frustrated. I had watched him as he’d attempted a running dive into the sandpit and fallen on his face, and now he was ready for anarchy.
He puffed his little chest and ran headfirst into the nearest adult. Before the unsuspecting man could gather himself, his assailant was pummelling a tween boy with balled fists and fury.
I could see no parent. I was expecting the tween victim to burst into tears, but instead he took a moment to recover before exclaiming to his friend: “What a savage!”
I asked a bunch of people if they knew what the slang term ‘savage’ meant, and despite some creative guesses from the grownups, none of them got it quite right. Kevin*, a 10 year old, let me in on what’s up: ‘You’re a savage if you do whatever you want and you don’t care what anyone thinks!’
The sentiment, coming from Kevin’s squeaky voice, was a little arresting. I asked him who taught him the catch phrase and he beamed. “Jake Paul!”
Jake and Logan Paul are YouTube superstars: each sibling commands a millions-strong army of adoring 7 to 12 year old fans. In the US, explains Brooklynn, a 12 year-old Logan super-fan from Tennessee, “Every kid in school loves either Jake or Logan.” And according to my year seven niece, their popularity here is fast catching up. These guys are bigger than the Beatles in the pre-tween world.
And yet, you’ve probably never heard of them. That’s because they’re one of a new breed of social media stars who target children with laser precision, and they’re making major bank doing it. The question is, should we be paying more attention?
2017 was the year we turned our kids into influencers. Kids are officially growing up wanting to be ‘influencers’. We take a look at where things went so wrong, on our podcast for imperfect parents. Post continues after audio.
Take one look at Jake or Logan’s daily vlog videos and you can see why kids find them so appealing. The brothers leap around like maniacs and goof off at the camera. They make silly jokes; they wrestle with one of their endless crew of sidekicks. Fast paced editing and slick production make the whole thing feels like a virtual roller coaster ride.
But what do they actually DO? Whatever will get the most clicks. This might mean jumping a car off a purpose-made dirt mound with no safety precautions, challenging other YouTubers to MMA fights, or honking a train horn in passer-bys’ faces ‘for the lols’. The most notorious of these dangerous and socially insensitive stunts belongs to Logan: his video of a hanging corpse in the Japanese ‘suicide forest’ brought universal condemnation, but one month and one apology tour later, his content is exactly the same.
The stunts are bad, but they’re not the worst part. Within the relative anonymity of their kids-only YouTube channels, the Paul brothers have pioneered a predatory money-making system that other social media stars are clamouring to reproduce.
It works like this. The brothers each give their devotees a ‘team name’- Logan’s fans are the ‘Logang’, Jake’s the ‘Jake Paulers’. They spend a good portion of every vlog talking directly to their fans; they tell them that they are part of a special, exclusive club.
They hammer home this messaging through branded catch phrases- Logan tells his fans to “be a maverick” and “do it different”, Jake’s version: “Be a savage!” A dozen or so of these soundbites are reinforced on high rotation. It all comes together to give viewers the impression that the stars know and care about them personally. “We’re the strongest family on YouTube!” says Logan. Brooklynn talks about him like he’s a dear friend: “I’m so glad that I am on this wonderful journey with him.”
Built into this message is a ready-made fortress against criticism. When Logan was copping flak in the media recently, fans rushed to his defence: “He’s a maverick, what do you expect?” read a typical YouTube comment.
Keemstar, another YouTuber who reports on ‘drama in the community’, refers to the brothers as cult leaders, and while trawling through commentary about the two I found endless comments from non-fans lamenting, “The Jake Paulers are so obsessed with Jake, he could kill someone and they’d still support him!”
Of course, it all comes down to money, and the brothers make an absurd amount of it. Figures are tough to obtain, but those in the know put estimates at over $70 million apiece, per year. Where’s it all coming from? Merch.
You see, the Pauls aren’t doing all this lovey-dovey stuff just to be nice. Every single day, they plug their merchandise at the end of the vlog. And at the start. And several times in the middle. “It’s the hottest merch in the game!” They make songs and music videos to plug their merch. “Go tell your mama, she gotta buy it all!” sings Jake.
Most insidiously, they constantly imply that the more merch fans buy, the more special they are to their idols. “When I see you guys wearing the merch, it shows me you’re a real maverick” says Logan frequently. In American schools, Jake and Logan Paul merch has replaced Adidas and Nike as ‘the in brand.’
So, is it so bad for kids to be a part of ‘the maverick movement’?
For most, probably not. But for those who are vulnerable or unconfident, the empty promise of friendship and inclusion could prove devastating. It’s these kids who are likely to let their ‘relationship’ with the Pauls replace real-world friendships. And it’s these kids who are most likely to be sucked into the notion that if they just get their parents to buy enough merch, they’ll be special.
The problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Each brother is personally training other YouTubers to follow the lucrative model, and all over social media, new ‘daily vloggers’ are emerging with merchandise ready for purchase.
So what can we, as parents, do? Monitoring everything our kids watch is unrealistic, but we can talk to them about it. I know I plan to start a conversation with my little boy when he starts watching YouTube. I’ll talk to him about the importance of thinking for himself, I’ll tell him that we don’t always have to agree with our idols, and most importantly, I’ll encourage him to maintain robust friendships in the real world.
It’s so easy to dismiss the stuff our kids are into as unimportant fads, but that’s exactly the attitude that stars like Jake and Logan Paul are taking advantage of. If we want to be able to discuss this stuff with our kids, we need to be paying attention.
Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees, It Comes From ATMs. Morris Gleitzman joins us to tell us why kids’ stories are so important, we discuss why kids are clueless about money, and we answer the question – can you turn down hand-me-downs?